These beautiful days of summer! So green. So full of life. Rabbits hanging out near the yard’s edge. Colorful songbirds returned in numbers. At the peak of summer it seems easy to feel the psalmist’s praise: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24).
The beauty we see around us invites deeper reflection on our relationship to the earth, to creation, to the environment. This seems particularly appropriate in light of the almost weekly news stories highlighting the impact climate change is having on our planet — and on the well-being of all these creatures we so enjoy during summer.
Catholic social teaching frequently reminds us to think differently about our interactions with the rest of God’s creation, and, more importantly, to act differently. It certainly is possible for us to change our behaviors and to treat the natural world with greater care. Such a change, however, requires that we re-examine our attitudes toward the environment and toward the many other creatures God has placed in nature.
Pope Francis offers abundant guidance on this in his 2015 encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home” (“Laudato Si’”). In different ways he invites us to re-imagine our relationship to the rest of God’s creation.
He points out that our search for God should take place in nature as it does in a church or in our homes. Nature is a place of God’s dwelling, and it is there also that we encounter our Creator. “The Spirit of life dwells in every creature and calls us to enter into a relationship with him” (88).
Pope Francis also warns that our attitude toward other creatures needs to change, especially our tendency to find value in other living beings only in so far as they benefit us. The Holy Father states that in God’s loving plan every creature has its own value and significance (76).
“The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us toward a common point of arrival, which is God” (83).
Catholic teaching recognizes that humans may use creation, that we may use other living things for our own benefit and survival. That said, Pope Francis reminds us that the purpose of other living things is not found in humans alone. Other creatures may have their own relationship with God, and that is a relationship we humans need to recognize and respect.
This was a point made in an earlier Catholic social teaching document, “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility,” written by Pope John Paul II in 1990. Near the end of the document he addressed his “Catholic brothers and sisters” directly and stated: “Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join us in praising God” (16). Humans are part of creation, and the respect we show for human life is owed also to the other living beings that God has placed on this earth beside us.
This does not diminish human dignity nor take away the special place and responsibility we have in creation. It simply argues that one of our responsibilities is to care for the land, for creation, for the environment, as God would — with care, compassion and wisdom. This we do through attentive, daily acts. As Pope Francis states, there is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions (211).
Respecting all of life means we pay attention to what we are doing — for example, to what we put on our lawns and on our crops. It means consciously limiting the harm we do to other living things. It means living today in ways that allow future generations to enjoy these beautiful days of summer.
Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.